AMSTERDAM – When Dutch artist Renzo Martens presented his film ‘Episode III: Enjoy Poverty’ at Tate Modern in London in 2010, he couldn’t help but notice the many Unilever logos painted on the museum’s white walls. .
Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch company that owns Ax, Dove, Vaseline and other household brands, sponsors the Unilever series, in which an artist is commissioned to produce a site-specific piece for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.
“Unilever, Unilever, the Unilever series,” Martens says in his latest documentary, “White Cube,” recalling that moment. “The World’s Greatest and Most Famous Artists, Funded by Unilever.”
Unilever was once nearly ubiquitous in the region of the Democratic Republic of Congo where Martens has worked since 2004. “Episode III: Enjoy Poverty,” from 2008, documented dire conditions in the country’s oil palm plantations, where workers earned less than $ 1 a day. In “White Cube”, he continues by visiting old plantations belonging to Unilever in the villages of Boteka and Lusanga. (Unilever sold the last of its Congo plantations in 2009.)
For Martens, Unilever represents a global operating system, in which Western companies extract resources from poorer countries, generate income, and then use some of that wealth to fund high culture elsewhere. Some of the artists they support, he added, also make works that focus on inequalities, but the benefits of those works rarely go to those who need them.
“The people on the plantations are desperately poor and work for the global community,” Martens said in a recent interview in Amsterdam. “They even work, indirectly, for exhibitions at Tate Modern. Art is sterile if it pretends to be a matter of inequality but does not bring benefits to such people.
“I wanted to make sure that a critique of inequality would make it possible, at least partially and materially, to correct this inequality,” he added.
Martens’ artistic career took off after “Episode III: Enjoy Poverty,” and he said he decided at that point to use his new position of influence in the art world to attempt a ” reverse gentrification project ”. The objective was to bring art directly to the plantations, to stimulate economic development there. “White Cube,” a 77-minute film that is screened in art centers around the world this month, including Eindhoven, the Netherlands; Kinshasa, Congo; Lagos, Nigeria; and Tokyo, documents this process. The film will also be screened at the Copenhagen Documentary Festival, which runs from April 21 to May 2.
“White Cube” is both a film and a recording of a project aimed at transforming a community through art. By directly connecting the rich international art world to an impoverished African plantation, Martens demonstrates how fortunes around the world are intertwined. Issues of restitution, repatriation and perhaps even reparations are at the heart of this endeavor. The underlying question posed by “White Cube” is: what does art owe to the communities from which it has extracted so much?
These questions are particularly relevant today, as governments are committed to identifying works of art looted from the African continent in their public museums. French President Emmanuel Macron pledged in 2017 to start a large-scale repatriation. He commissioned a study which found that 90-95% of African art is held by museums outside of Africa. An advisory committee to the Dutch government also recommended last year that the Netherlands return art to its former colonies.
“What needs to be returned is not just old items – for sure it has to happen – but it’s also a matter of infrastructure,” Martens said. “Where does art take place? Where is art allowed to attract people’s capital, visibility and legitimacy? “
“White Cube” begins in 2012, when Martens attempts to bring art to an operational plantation in Boteka. Things quickly go wrong and he is driven out of the community under threats from a Congolese company that has taken over management of the plantation after Unilever’s withdrawal.
He succeeds best when he tries again in Lusanga, a village once known as Leverville, after William Lever, founder of a company that would later become Unilever. Lever established one of his first Congolese plantations there in 1911. The Leverville operation closed in the 1990s, leaving behind abandoned buildings and soils that had become impassable after a century of intensive monoculture.
In the film, Martens says that Unilever got its plantations in the Congo through a land grant from Belgian colonial administrators in the early 20th century, reaped the profits and depleted the land, then sold the land and abandoned the business to entrepreneurs.
Unilever declined to comment on Martens’ film or his exploitation charges against the company. Marlous den Bieman, a spokesperson for Unilever, said in an email that “Unilever has had no involvement in the DRC’s plantations since their sale over 10 years ago.”
As part of the “White Cube,” former farm workers volunteered to be part of an art studio producing sculptures, which they poured in chocolate – a delicacy rarely tasted by workers, despite the fact that they produced palm oil, a key ingredient – then sold in an art gallery in New York. Local sculptors formed a cooperative, the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League, and shared the proceeds from the sales. So far, the “White Cube” project has generated $ 400,000 for the local community, said René Ngongo, Congolese president of the cooperative; he used half of it to buy more land.
As the centerpiece of the project in Lusanga, Martens enlisted the help of OMA, the company of Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, for free to design an art museum – the “White Cube” in the film’s title. Behind the scenes, he negotiated with a Dutch philanthropist to pay him, and worked with Congolese architect Arséne Ijambo, who adapted the design and hired local construction workers. In total, around $ 250,000 in private investment was raised to build the museum, art studios, a conference center and housing, according to Martens.
In a recent video interview from Congo, Cedart Tamasala, one of the locals who makes the chocolate sculptures, said he had aspired to be an artist from an early age but was forced to give up the art school in Kinshasa for lack of funds. and went to work on his uncle’s family farm without pay. The “White Cube” project gave him income, stability and a sense of empowerment, he said.
“One of the important things is that we have our space now; we have our land and we can decide what we want to do with it, ”he noted.
“The film, like the white cube, is a tool,” Tamasala added. “It tells what we do, and it makes it visible, and it also connects us to the world, to other plantations, to other artists, and it gives us access to things that we didn’t have access to before.” .
The museum was closed during the coronavirus pandemic, but there are plans to display the work of local artists there, including, eventually, works of art returned by European museums.
“My most ardent wish for the Lusanga museum is that it be a support for the repatriation of our diverted art,” said Jean-François Mombia, a human rights activist who has worked with Martens since 2005, in a statement. e-mail exchange, “but also a medium that will allow us to express ourselves through art. We want the Lusanga museum to be a base for the artistic development of museums across the Congo.
Tamasala said bringing stolen art back to Congo during colonial times would only represent a small compensation for anything looted in his community. “Besides the works of art that were taken out of here, there were diamonds, gold, palm oil, so many things,” he said. “If we need to give something back, we have to give it all back, not just the art.”
With that in mind, are there any limits to what Martens thinks he can do for a former plantation town?
“I don’t see any limits yet,” he says. “I only see possibilities.”
Art was “a magic wand,” he added, that could “create all of these positive side effects. I think this should happen on a plantation, and not exclusively in New York or Amsterdam, or Dubai or Cape Town. “